Virginia strives for consistency against Michigan
Erratic shooting, rebounding plague start to 2013-14 campaign
Days before the Virginia women’s basketball team tipped off its 2013-14 season, the Cavaliers talked about their hope — one they almost described as an expectation — of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in coach Joanne Boyle’s three-year tenure. With senior guards Ataira Franklin, Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe starting in the backcourt and junior forward Sarah Imovbioh bringing physical, energetic post-play, Virginia appeared primed to contend for a slot in the 68-team field.
Virginia (3-4) is only seven games into its 30-game schedule, but to this point, the Cavaliers’ Tournament worthiness looks dubious. Virginia has shot the ball and crashed the boards with only intermittent success, and impressive offensive displays — the 95-point deluge against Louisiana Tech, for example — lose their shimmer when paired with recurrent woeful shooting performances.
Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers will look to take a step toward Tournament-level consistency against Michigan in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Wolverines (5-3) come in to the game having won four of their past five games, and with a combined 42 wins and two March Madness appearances in the last two seasons, they have a recent history of playing Tournament-caliber basketball. Michigan also boasts a prowess on the glass and from beyond the arc — the Wolverines launch 18 3-pointers per game and hit 41.7 percent of them — that could give Virginia fits.
“They’re a very high-motor offensive team, but they’re a set team — they run a lot of sets — and so we’ve got to take some things away,” Boyle said. “[We] just can’t let them run through their stuff.”
Junior guard Shannon Smith leads Michigan in scoring at 17.3 points per game, but represents just one of Michigan’s bevy of scoring options. Six Wolverines put up seven or more points per game, including freshman guard Siera Thompson, Michigan’s top long-range threat with 20 treys in eight games. The Wolverines have averaged 72.9 points per game thus far this season.
While Michigan has played impressive basketball of late — the Wolverines have registered three double-digit wins in their past five games and lost by two against No. 13 LSU on Saturday — Virginia is coming off a forgettable performance against Kansas State, its third consecutive defeat and second in two days at the Junkanoo Jam Tournament on Grand Bahama Island. The Cavaliers lost the battle on the boards, and though they held the Wildcats to 32.8 percent shooting, Virginia’s 26.8 percent and 0-for-10 output from 3-point range sealed an embarrassing loss.
“We just could not make a basket,” Boyle said. “We didn’t have a lot of legs. We played a lot more one-on-one basketball. We weren’t running through our stuff. The pace of the game early was really fast … What should have been a more settling game became a frantic game.”
The Kansas State flop was a step down from Virginia’s best game of the year, a 76-67 loss to No. 3 Tennessee on Thanksgiving Day. The Cavaliers played “Virginia basketball” in the matchup, forcing 20-plus turnovers and recording 15-plus assists, while also holding two of Tennessee’s five double-figure scorers below their customary total and making the Volunteers play in the half court instead of getting out in transition. Virginia led for the entire first half before Tennessee stormed back after intermission to reject the Cavaliers’ upset bid.
“We didn’t allow second-chance points,” Boyle said. “We took all of the rebounds away … I thought the game-plan was great. It’s just, we left too many free throws out on the table, and we came out flat in the second half.”
Mirroring Virginia as a whole, junior forward Sarah Imovbioh has been up-and-down to start the year. Imovbioh has four double-doubles, including a 20-point, 15-rebound showing against Kansas State, but she floundered in games against Tennessee (five points, five rebounds, three turnovers) and West Virginia (five points, zero rebounds, three turnovers). Imovbioh was limited by foul trouble in both games, and she is still adapting to the rule changes instituted by the NCAA to encourage higher-scoring games.
“Sometimes it’s so hard for me because I go in super aggressive, and I don’t feel like I’m fouling them, but they call it,” Imovbioh said. “But I just have to adjust.”
Boyle and the Cavaliers have not played to their standards to start the year, but they remain confident in their ability to right the ship.
“We’re young and we’re a little injured, but we still got all the pieces, and we just got to stay the course with them,” Boyle said. “They’ll turn the corner.”